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  • Zaō Gongen:From Mountain Icon to National Treasure
  • Heather Blair (bio)

In 1932, the eminent anthropologist Torii Ryūzō 鳥居龍藏 was working on a series of newspaper articles about famous sights in Tokyo. On 18 July, he and a supporting news team paid a visit to Nishiarai Daishi 西新井大師, officially known as Sōjiji 総持寺, a large Zen temple located in Adachi ward. As he was walking down the hall to the temple's reception room, Torii saw something that stopped him in his tracks. The object that drew his attention was a large, flat bronze. He wrote later that "it looked like a mirror of some kind, and so I immediately ran over, went up, and examined it closely. It was, of all things, a sacred mirror with an inscription from Chōhō 3 [1001]. The discovery we had made filled us with delight and wonder." 1

The bronze had sustained considerable damage but nonetheless measured an imposing 68 centimeters tall and 76 centimeters wide. On the front, it had been incised with a detailed image of a wrathful deity wearing a Dharma-wheel necklace and surrounded by a grotesque, armed retinue (see figure 1a). On the back, the bronze bore a mandalic array of Sanskrit mantras (see figure 1b). But what really commanded Toriis attention was the inscription, which confirmed that the "mirror of some kind" was over 1,000 years old.

For decades, Torii had played a significant role as a public intellectual, helping to shape Japanese ethnic and national identity. When he said that something was important, people listened. A year after his initial visit to Sōjiji, Torii published an article about the bronze, and two years later it was designated a national treasure [End Page 1] . 2 That status has since been reconfirmed, and today the Tokyo National Museum curates and routinely exhibits the bronze as part of Japan's cultural heritage.

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Figure 1a.

The Sōjiji bronze, front, depicting Zaō and his retinue. National treasure. Courtesy of Sōjiji, Tokyo (owner) and the Tokyo National Museum (curator). Image provided by the Tokyo National Museum.

Of course, there is a back-story Before the government assessed the bronze as a historically significant work of art, and before it arrived in the hallway of a Zen temple, it had played a role in religious life far from modern Tokyo. In order to tell that story, this article provides an episodic biography of the bronze, which almost certainly represents Zaō 蔵王, the tutelary deity of Kinpusen 金峯山, a mountain that stands about sixty kilometers southeast of Osaka and that has been a major pilgrimage destination since at least the tenth century. 3 Kinpusen has also been a center for Shugendō since the middle ages and has had close organizational ties to the Tendai and Shingon schools. What I shall call, for convenience's sake, the Sōjiji bronze, is one of the earliest and most important representations of Zaō, and in the first episode presented here, I consider the context in which it was produced. While we cannot specify the bronze's exact origins, we can infer that it was produced as a votive icon and then sent to Kinpusen by lower-ranking members of Heian court society. 4 It also seems to have constituted a feat of technological and stylistic derring-do. Its iconographiC program [End Page 2] is most unusual, its overall quality unmatched, and in terms of sheer size it is anomalous. The bronze's strangeness in comparison to other metalwork, indeed, is congruent with the qualities of the deity it represents: Zaō was a local, hybrid god amenable to iconographic experimentation and heterodox interpretation.

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Figure 1B.

The Sōjiji bronze, back, showing mantras and inscriptions. National treasure. Courtesy of Sōjiji, Tokyo (owner) and the Tokyo National Museum (curator). Image provided by the Tokyo National Museum.

In the Heian period, ambiguities in Zaō's identity supported the bronze's creation by providing fertile ground for experimentation; many centuries later in the Meiji era, however, they precipitated the bronze's departure from Kinpusen. The latter process is the topic of the second episode discussed...


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